The big sleep

The big issues have been given a wide berth in the campaign for Germany’s general elections on 27 September. It’s a shame the big parties are so afraid of unsettling the electorate, bemoans the novelist Elke Schmitter. After all, politics is also about trying to change the world we live in.

Published on 25 September 2009 at 14:32
Vote for a completely tedious future. Elections posters in Berlin, 18 September, 2009 (AFP)

Visitors to Germany these days are struck by two larger-than-life faces smiling at them: the man looking genial and benign, the woman slightly impish. Look! they seem to say, we’re well off and perfectly content with being perfectly average. We could be advertising for, say, decaffeinated coffee or anything else that stands for both cheerfulness and moderation, optimism and Gemütlichkeit.

There is no way for the uninitiated to guess that this is about political elections. It seems absurd to him that this might be a country in crisis. The current election campaign in Germany calls to mind a line from a Prussian minister after a lost battle a century ago: “Calm is our foremost civic duty.” Nowadays it seems to be above all our politicians’ foremost duty. The calm after the battle, before the battle, during the battle?

Don't worry, be happy

The shock of a global economic crisis has been absorbed; a tour de force of latter-day statesmanship, no doubt about it. But the heroes of the day give the impression that a discreet brand of expertise could basically be enough to cope with a crisis of any kind. The so-called TV duel between the two would-be chancellors proceeds in perfect time, like a minuet. Self-control prevails in the foreground – fear, in other words, in the background: fear of forgetting oneself, of gaffes, fear of imponderables of any kind. This country’s national anthem could be a musical-box rendition of “Don't worry, be happy”.

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Confides one government minister “off the record”: we shouldn’t complain about the dearth of pathos, the political lethargy. Since World War II, Germany has fared quite well with all these elements of mutual control, of the compulsion to keep the consensus: federalism, trade unions and associations – they made sure everything went very slowly. Germans want it that way, says the minister. The Great Inflation of 1923, the Weimar Republic disaster, two world wars – the nation is still scared stiff. Now we’re better off looking long and hard before we leap. And no emotion, please.

No pathos, no virtuosity

The grand coalition is, of course, the embodiment of all these virtues. That it has stood the test of time is fatal right now, seeing as, after the first-aid measures last autumn, the question of the right remedy for the patient is now not a matter of consensus, but conviction. 20 years ago, a whole cast of well-nigh obnoxious political characters suddenly emerged from the woodwork: glistening eyes and beards, impassioned faces, oddballs, active dreamers. Where have they all gone?

The mainstream party machines breed a comportment aimed at nuts-and-bolts competence in policy matters combined with lockstep conformity in appearance. Pathos and brilliance, humour and wherewithal, passionate convictions and the impertinence of individuality must be kept out of sight in the upper echelons. Evenhandedness is de rigueur in the so-called political debates – the usual “on the one hand…, but on the other…” (drastic harsh cutbacks for all, but preservation of the welfare state; a little ecology, but of course conventional growth, too; a little war, but rather by accident). You can tell by the lethargy of the electorate, who evidently cannot be wrenched into grasping that this is a “watershed election”.

Let's talk about growth, please

To voters nowadays, the ruinous hyperinflation of the 1920s, the chaos of the late Weimar Republic and the whole Nazi period are facts from the history books. But the truly troubling realities now are the brutal injustice in the distribution of wealth and security, the disembowelment of nature, the pauperisation of whole regions of the world, and, finally, the neglect and apathisation of the doomed and disenfranchised in Germany. This disquiet is fuelled by the fear that all those little improvements, that mulish just-keep-going, are no answers to the problems we face. When Opel gets bailed out, it is not just for Opel’s sake, but for countless small and medium-sized companies – probably true enough. But that nagging doubt just won’t go away: Are cars really the future? When, if not now, will it be time to really hash out the issues of growth and ecology, the definition of work, participation in society? When will the big debate take place where it belongs: in parliament and in the so-called big-tent parties?

No experiments! warned Adenauer’s aged face back in the late ’50s, and it’s the same slogan today, even if we hear it from a musical box. And yet experiments are badly needed now. The financial sector has gone straight back to business as usual as though nothing had happened. The polar icecaps are melting away. Whilst politics is staged as a purely administrative act. It is in the nature of human perception for us to fear pickpockets more than the hole in the ozone layer. We have no organ to perceive what lies in store for us the day after tomorrow; there’s nothing for it but knowledge and collective reason that turns into action. Actually, that is what’s called politics


Mona Lisa versus beta male

Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been governing Germany together for four years now. They have been much thrown together, willy-nilly, over the years – and yet kept their distance in their personal relations. In one corner we have the chancellor: “the stranger”, as the FAZ calls her, with the “Mona Lisa smile” (SZ), whom Germans still consider a “curious” creature, says Die Zeit. And yet the nation still thinks highly of the first woman – and from East Germany, to boot – ever to hold the highest office in the land. That is “her greatest feat”, eclipsing even her political achievements. The “girl” who broke free from under Helmut Kohl’s shadow, and whom the FAZ accuses of pursuing left-wing economic policies, still doesn’t feel at home in her party, the Christian Democrats.

In the other corner, the white-haired foreign minister. Steinmeier “did not have a huge following,” writes the FAZ. “His party simply thrust him to the fore. So he does his duty.” Steinmeier is the antithesis of his limelight-loving erstwhile mentor Gerhard Schröder: “What he’d enjoy most would be sitting down with ten people who have ten divergent opinions and talking them into a compromise to everyone’s satisfaction, says one of Steinmeier’s intimates.” Germans consider him above all a "competent" politician, a “moderator”, a “broker”, a “beta male” – not a chancellor.

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